Yes this update is longer than usually, mainly because I wanted to get this big segment resolved in one shot~
A fitting word for the experience doesn't come to mind even now. All I can offer is what you would need to go through in order for you to feel the same.
Imagine that you owned a chair. It was worn down and beaten, but generally you ignore it and simply make do with the other pieces of furniture you own.
If someone were to click their fingers and your chair transformed into a genie, then you would probably be able to relate with how I felt seeing that statue of Vaisravana look down on me.
His eyes shone with a faint blue light, but His expression was as severe and determined as ever. His grip on the spear tightened, ready to strike me down at any moment, and a light red aura ran across His sculpted robes. The pagoda in His hand now let out a magnificent light, bouncing off every wall in the room. Byakuren's hand on my back drained away my feelings of fear, and I felt something different rising up in me as I witnessed His newfound greatness. A feeling I was not used to feeling for others, but others were often more than willing to give me.
It was respect.
He blinked once, observing me intently. His mouth slid open, as a powerful voice resonated throughout the hall.
"I am Vaisravana. God of fortune. Guardian of the north. Punisher of the unjust."
My heart shook a little at those words. Spoken with such authority, such power, I felt like I was back at the bottom of the food chain all over again. I unconsciously bowed my head toward the god as a sign of honour. It was the first time I had ever felt such genuine humility toward another being.
"I can see your heart, child. I see your honesty, your loyalty, and your passion for justice - all signs of an excellent apprentice. Clearly, my servant has chosen well."
Was I blushing? I didn't even think I could blush. Youkai are weird like that.
"Aw, tiger-kun. You're so cute when you're nervous~"I-I'm not nervous! Really!
Byakuren giggled again, stroking me down my back. I held in a purr with some effort.
Vaisravana's face lightened for a moment. A smile slid across His face momentarily, but he was soon back to His typical stern self.
"Know this - though I am a god, I am not omnipresent. There are many other temples who would call on me, so it is becoming necessary to train those resident to the area to act as my disciples. To spread the glory of Vaisravana, to bring punishment upon the villains and fortune to the just."
He looked straight at my eyes, and maybe even through them - inspecting my insides, determining my worth.
"Child - can I ask this of you? I see a great potential in you..."
I had been intending to accept the offer long beforehand out of tedium, but in the short time I'd seen Him in the stony flesh it had changed entirely. Nazrin had been impressive, and Byakuren likely stronger still, but both paled in the face of a god. In terms of power and righteousness, He was like nothing I had ever seen before. Even being in his presence filled me with awe.
And, along with it, a desire to become like him.
I nodded my head excitedly, not taking a moment to pause. If the other tigers saw me as their idol, then Vaisravana had just become mine.
"Excellent! Such enthusiasm shall get you far. Now, let me bestow upon you a pair of gifts..."
He raised the spear slightly, His grip growing stronger still. His eyes closed, a familiar look of determination rising on his face.
He slammed the spear's end on the floor, sending a wave of golden light along the ground. I could see something take shape in front of me, fading into existence at Vaisravana's feet. It was a light orange ornament in the shape of a lotus.
"This is an enchanted headdress. Determined as you may be, it will be easier for you to perform your duty in a somewhat more...practical form."
He raised His spear once again, and this time as He slammed down a green circle swept across the floor. Next to the headdress lay a smaller version of the jeweled pagoda that Vaisravana himself held, though duller and with no light coming from within.
"This pagoda is the source of your power. I trust my servants will be able to teach you its ways, and how to harness my strength to be yours. It may be a difficult task, but I have faith in you."
I nodded once again, smiling.I'll do by best, Vaisravana-sama!
He smirked one last time.
"It is pleasing to see such ambitious youths here. I wish you the best of luck."
The aura began to fade, and in a matter of seconds the room was once again as it was. The only sign of Vaisravana's presence was the pair of artifacts lying in front of me.
Behind me, Byakuren applauded.
"Congratulations, tiger-kun! I've never seen Him praise anyone so on their first meeting!"
I was blushing again, I knew it. I saw Byakuren slip in front of me and pick up the headdress, ready to place it on my head.
"Well, let's get started. I wonder what you look like as a human~?"
Time froze for an instant....Human? That thing is gonna make me...human!?
I leapt away on instinct. Byakuren's eyes widened, puzzled, as she looked across at me.
"Eh? What's wrong, tiger-kun?"
I was shaking, uncontrollably. I knew enough about humans to know that putting that thing on was a bad, bad idea. Unfortunately I'd caught myself in a corner, and as Byakuren slowly walked towards me with the artifact in hand I noticed there was no way out.
"Aw...nothing wrong with being a little pretty, tiger-kun. Don't be so prideful~!"I-It's not like that! Seriously, I can't wear that thing!
I didn't want to bite her - she clearly didn't know how bad this idea was - but I couldn't think of another way to get rid of her. I had to come up with something quick, something she wouldn't predict-Pat.
Clearly I still didn't have the whole 'quick thinking' thing sorted out, because while I'd been coming up with a plan Byakuren had ample time to plop the lotus on my head.
"There we go! Now, this may hurt a little..."
I looked up at it for a few seconds, puzzled. I wondered if it was metaphorical, some sort of symbol of my new life under Vaisravana. Was it a test of some sort, perhaps?
Then the headache started, and I decided it was very literal.
"Gaooo..."I...need to lie down a little...
The strength in my legs ebbed away, and I let myself slide onto the floor. My body lost all feeling, as if it was no longer my own. My eyes slipped shut, on the verge of sending me into a deep slumber.
Then, suddenly, pain. Everywhere.
Burning. Burning burning burning. Fire in my blood, on my skin, on my fur, in my eyes, everywhere. I couldn't breathe, I couldn't see, I couldn't move. Was this a trick, a trap? Did they mean to kill me after all?
"S-Stay strong, tiger-kun! It'll be over soon!"
Byakuren's concerned words echoed in my ears, almost unheard over my own cry of agony. I grit my teeth. She seemed as shocked as I was at the intensity of the pain, and that was enough to convince me to fight on.I can't...let them down...!
Admist the pain, I felt something else seeping into me from the headdress. It was power, in its rawest form, starting at the top of my head and flowing through me. My body almost seemed to shift as it moved through me. As it passed through the pain changed for an instant, the feeling of every hair on my body being torn away save a small section of my head - and then it was gone.
As this new strength finished its journey around my body, I hugged myself in relief and congratulations. I felt cold, but the passing of the pain was enough to keep my mind off of it. Looking down, I realised just what I was doing - I saw a pair of arms wrap around my shoulders and I realised they were my own.
As human words slipped out of my mouth for the first time, the logical continuation of the voice in my head, I realised the transformation was complete. I was bare, exposed for all the world to see.
Byakuren applauded again.
"Well done, tiger-kun! I knew you could-"
She cut herself off. She took a look at my body more carefully, shock slowly registering in her eyes.
"...oh. Oh, my. You're a..."
I hung my head in shame, blushing furiously. I felt disgraced, ashamed, humiliated. My secret - the one thing I'd kept from even my own pack - had been revealed at last.
"...Yes," I muttered, beneath my breath. "I'm no tiger."
I wept quietly.
"I'm a tigress."
At the time, hiding it had been a mechanical response, one to prolong my life and improve my social standing. As the years passed I eventually assumed the problem solved, and it wasn't until tonight that the old insecurities rose back to the surface.
And in a matter of hours, everything had come tumbling apart.
Byakuren bit her lip for an instant, but eventually sighed.
"...It seems I made a mistake. I must ask for your forgiveness."
I lifted my head in surprise, eyes watering. Why was she apologising to me? I had been the liar, and the proof was right here. Hanging from my chest, plain as day - two mounds of flesh that a man was never meant to have.
Despite that, Byakuren stepped over to me, still smiling, and stretched out a hand.
"Come on, tiger-chan. I've got some nightrobes you can wear for now."
I looked blankly at the hand. I convinced myself that it was an illusion, that no-one would be so kind to a liar like me. That now she saw me for the weak young girl I was that I'd be cast out again and Vaisravana's wrath would fall upon me for my falsehood.
I blinked once. The hand was still there.
"It's alright. I understand, and it's okay. You can stop hiding it now."
Byakuren's patience and kindness were seemingly infinite, holding by me regardless of whatever weakness I seemed to show. It was too incredible, too good to be true. I'd never seen dedication like this in the wild, even between father and son.
Still, as I leapt into her arms sobbing, I was more grateful for it than I could imagine. My once proud war cry descended into a pathetic wimper.
"Gaoooo...I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry..."
My tears slipped onto her dress as I held my head against her breast. She wrapped her arms around me in a delicate embrace.
"There, there. Let's get you to bed for now. You've had a long day."
She led me through to the living quarters, into one of the small bedrooms the temple had to offer. There was little beyond a bed and a solitary table with a mirror on it, but right now that was all I wanted. I caught a glance of myself in the mirror, seeing that no sign of my old form remained other than my hair - blonde with streaks of black running through it - and my eyes, as bright and golden as they had always been.
Leaving me on my own for a few short seconds, Byakuren brought a simple black nightgown from her own room and offered it to me. I slipped it on, still unused to the feel of cloth against my skin instead of fur, as my teary outburst died down. Being in the presence of someone who cared to this extent was a relief in itself, and my composure returned far sooner than if I'd simply been left alone. I sat on the bed, turning away.
"I...I'm sorry. I've already been a burden to you, haven't I?"
I tried to make it come out light-hearted, but my voice betrayed me. Byakuren smiled regardless, sinking to her knees to look at me eye-to-eye.
"Don't hold it against yourself. It's always rough at the beginning. Nazrin was very similar in that regard, and she recovered from it. In a few weeks it will pass and you'll feel right at home here."
I forced a smile. I wanted to believe what she was saying, desperately so. She seemed so kind, so genuine, I couldn't believe she simply wanted to comfort me. She honestly believed that I would enjoy my time here.
"And...it doesn't matter? I'm not going to get struck by lightning or anything for not being a brave manly hero?"
"Of course not, tiger-chan. Man or woman, you still have the promise Vaisravana spoke of. There is no reason for you to be ashamed."
I clenched my fist unconsciously.
"Um...could you stop calling me tiger-chan? It's sort of impersonal..."
"Ah, sorry. It's just that you don't appear to have any name of your own, and..."
Byakuren's eyes turned away from me, looking out of the room's solitary window. I followed her gaze, looking out into the clear night sky.
A single star shone brighter than the rest, earning the attention my newfound fellow disciple.
"...Beautiful, is it not? It reminds me of you, in a lot of ways..."
She looked back to me, a new confidence running across her face as she stood straight.
"You were trusted, loved by your people, weren't you? You were a beacon to them, a shining star to your little ring of tigers."
The metaphor took a while to sink in, but eventually I nodded.
"Then that's what I'll call you."
She stood straight, bowing to me again.
"Star of the tiger circle - Shou Toramaru. Does that sound good to you?"
The words ran through my head. I let the name slip out of my mouth silently a few times....Shou. Shou. Shou.
That was me. That was my name. That was who I was. Not the strongest of the tigers, not the latest follower of Vaisravana. I was Shou Toramaru.
"It...has a nice ring to it," I finally managed to spit out.
"Wonderful! I thought you'd like it."
She ruffled my hair slightly as she took a step towards the door.
"Now, get some rest. We'll start your training tomorrow, so for now you should take it easy."
I nodded, feeling better already as I slipped beneath the covers.
"Right. ...Thank you."
Byakuren shook her head.
"No need for thanks, Shou-chan. Good night."
"Good night, Hijiri-sama."
Byakuren carefully slid the door closed, leaving me to myself for the rest of the night. By now there were likely only a few hours until the morning, so I decided it was worth getting all the sleep I could muster.
"...I owe them. I owe them a lot."
Both of these people had offered me something new in these hours. Vaisravana had been an idol, a goal to strive for. Byakuren had been a solace, a shoulder to cry on. In their own way, they'd each managed to offer me something I'd never experienced before.
"I can't let them down. I won't
let them down."Bring on this training of yours. It's the least I can do to pull it off, right?
Determination began to rise up in me. I needed to get all the sleep I could now if I wanted to get anywhere - no point in showing up for training tomorrow almost unconscious.
Sleep came quickly, and peacefully. The last thought that passed through my mind was an endeavour to please both of them in return for what they'd offered me.
It was only fair, after all.
tl;dr - Oh, snap.